A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why Creeds Are Important

I love the Nicene Creed! I was not raised in a church tradition that emphasized creeds, In fact we avoided them. We were taught that we were about the authority of Scripture only and creeds undermined the Scriptures and added to them. Over the years, however, as I have read theology and reflected theologically, I have come to appreciate the Christian creedal tradition and see it's indispensable benefit to the church that seeks to be faithful to the Gospel.

So why are creeds important?

First, creeds are important because they remind us that there are non-negotiables when it comes to Christian doctrine. As an individual I cannot make Christianity whatever I wish it to be. I do not make up the faith; I receive it. Of course, I bring myself, my personal narratives, and my context to my faith, but there are certain affirmations that must be made for the faith to be Christian faith. Many years ago, the great neo-orthodox theologian, Emil Brunner wrote a basic primer on Christianity entitling it, Our Faith. Brunner knew that Christian faith would be distorted if each individual only assumed that her or his faith belonged exclusively and only to her or him. Without the faith of those who have gone before, the faith of an exclusively personal faith is not worth having. We cannot see over the horizon to glimpse the Kingdom of God without standing on the shoulders of our faithful mothers and fathers who have passed the identity they have received to us. Doctrine does matter. I have not been given the right or authority to reject the essentials of Christianity because they go against my modern sensibilities.

Second, creeds remind us that while there are non-negotiables, there is also plenty of room for diversity and difference of opinion. It must not be forgotten that the Creeds are brief. There is much they do not mention. The temptation for Christians throughout history is to major in the minors, or to, as in the words of Father John Wesley, place at the center those things that "do not strike at the root" of the faith. For some Christians inerrancy is an important doctrine, but never has the church affirmed or denied that in a creed. Historically, in the debates over the atonement, some have preferred one understanding of Christ's work over another, and some have even rejected one or more aspects of atonement in favor of only one. But never has the ecumenical church taken a position on which aspect of the atonement is the only correct one. In their wisdom they understood that no one "theory" of Christ's work adequately explains what it means for Christ to be our Savior. What Jesus has done for us is too rich and too wonderful to be reduced only to sacrificial substitution or exemplary love to the exclusion of everything else.

Third, and finally, the Creeds do not undermine Scripture, nor do they add to the Bible in a way that rejects Scripture. The creeds are the necessary result of a discussion that the church would have to have because of the testimony of the New Testament, particularly of the witness it bears to Jesus Christ-- who he is and what he has done. The Nicean theologians knew that what was finally affirmed about the person of Jesus made a difference for what his work accomplished. At the Council of Nicea, the central question swirling in the background was, "If we say "thus and so" about Jesus, what does it mean for our salvation?" They understood all too well that the answer to that question mattered.

I could add further reasons, but I do not want to lose the trinitarian character of this post-- That too matters; for our creeds rightly affirm on account of the New Testament witness, that the Trinity is the essential Christian doctrine of God.

So, as one who grew up knowing that creeds existed, but having no idea what they were, nor having ever recited one, I now utter those words in worship with great conviction, thankful to God that I have received and accepted these words as my faith, precisely because they are first and foremost, our faith.


revjimparsons said...

I love the creeds as well. Every week we, as a congregation, profess our faith in the Apostle's Creed. I take that moment in worship to remind people that this defines who we are and whose we are. By putting into our memory, through repetition, it becomes who we are as well. The creeds give us strength and knowledge when times get tough and we are looking for answers.

Thanks for the post.

Robert Cornwall said...

I guess the question is -- how do these creeds define what is non-negotiable? What makes Nicea definitive for Christian life -- remembering that Nicea is really Constantinople, and that it only resolved some questions and not all. Besides that we have the filioque clause which wasn't part of the original, but added centuries later in the West.

I have no problem with creeds as historical markers, but question whether they have once and for the definitive, especially when they are deeply rooted in Greek philosohical categories. Do we have to accept the underlying philosophical categories to make sense of them? Just a few questions from a historian -- and pastor in a non-creedal tradition.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, indeed... excellent questions. I gave the very general overview as to why creeds are important. Now with your questions we delve into the more difficult nuance of the discussion.

Let me offer just a few brief thoughts that I hope will help answer your questions, but will certainly not exhaust the discussion.

First, a creed as you know can only be a creed if it has ecumenical consent. So, a creed is expressing authoritatively the mind of the church (which is a creation of God and according to the NT has been vested with such authority). Of course, we could never have an ecumenical council today because the church is too divided, but that is another matter for another discussion.

Based on this assumption, it seems to me that when the universal church speaks it is authoritative.

Second, yes, Nicea only resolved some questions not all. Just as a creed does not speak on everything, so an ecumenical council cannot and does not either. Neverthless, Nicea dealt with necessary christological and soteriological issues for all generations. Thus we must not reject them out of hand, but at the same time they do not define completely what it might mean for Jesus to be "God from God, Light from Light." We certainly can get an idea when we look at the christological understandings that were rejected, but obviously there is more to the matter as time goes on.

By the way, I think it can safely be said that every christological "heresy" that existed then, exists in one form or another today. In that respect there is nothing new under the sun. We have not really encountered new perspectives on christology as we have different twists on old ideas.

The filioque is first an ecclesiological problem. The West never should have added it simply because to change a creed again requires ecumenical consent. At this point let me recommend an excellent book, edited by Christopher Sykes, Nicene Christianity, if you want to read some wonderfully reflective stuff by Christians from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions, who embrace Nicene Christianity and attempt to understand it in our time.

Finally, I would say that if the creeds are only historical markers, then they really are not all that significant. They must be more. The Greek philosophical matter is problematic, but all theological thought comes to us within a philosophical framework. I think it is possible to look at what they did and understand where they could have asked some of the questions in a different way if they had had some different philosophical assumptions. We can do that today and still stand in the Nicene tradition. So, in short, no... we do not have to accept everything about their philosophy, since the issues are more than philosophical.

Kurt M. Boemler said...

I'd suggest reading William Abraham's "Canonical Theism" for further conversation regarding the relationship between scripture and the creeds.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest reading William Abraham's "Canonical Theism" for further conversation regarding the relationship between scripture and the creeds.

I like Luke Timothy Johnson's book "Creed." It is for non-academics, but does a nice job of explaining the Scriptural roots of the creeds and discussing the implications and meanings.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I appreciate these recommendations. Reading helps to continue the conversation as well.